More cities should follow Chicago’s lead by sharing water billing data

The lack of transparency by other utilities presents a challenge for community organizations, public health experts, and homeowners and customers who want to understand water costs and come up with solutions for water affordability.

SHARE More cities should follow Chicago’s lead by sharing water billing data
A woman walks across North LaSalle Street in front of Chicago’s City Hall, located at 121 North LaSalle Street, in the Loop neighborhood, Monday, Nov. 1, 2021.

A woman walks across North La Salle Street in front of City Hall, located at 121 North LaSalle Street, in the Loop neighborhood. on Nov. 1.

Tyler LaRiviere/Sun-Times

This past week, my nonprofit, Elevate, released a study with the Metropolitan Planning Council to assess the growing water affordability challenge in Chicago. We’ve done similar research in the past to look into water affordability challenges, like water bill costs throughout the region. But this study is novel because the City of Chicago took the bold step of sharing its water billing data for our analysis.

If you’ve never heard of a water utility sharing its customers’ water billing data with researchers or the public, it’s because not many do. Chicago’s water utility was uniquely positioned to securely share its data. Today, many water utilities, usually housed within city or county departments, are facing pressure to share water billing data as rising water costs impact more households across the income spectrum. The lack of transparency with data presents a challenge for community organizations, public health experts, and homeowners and water customers who want to understand water costs and come up with solutions for water affordability.

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You may have noticed that water affordability is a growing issue in the Great Lakes region and across the nation. In northeastern Illinois, the average water rate grew by almost 80% over the past decade (2008-2018) and water bill growth is outpacing income growth in 78% of communities.

Why are water costs going up? Part of the reason is that our water infrastructure, built over a century ago, has aged and urgently needs repair and replacement. Today, almost all water utility customers pay a rate to provide funding for this necessary water infrastructure, driving up the cost of water service.

As water costs rise, income growth has been slower. With this income imbalance, lower-income households face significant financial burden with bill increases and mounting levels of water debt. These factors put significant strain on households and on water utility departments facing rising costs to operate water systems.

Developing solutions to water affordability challenges is hard, there’s no mistaking it. These complex issues become more understandable with transparency from water utilities and a willingness to work together with the community. Existing initiatives by the city like its Utility Bill Relief program are providing direct relief to families, cutting water bills in half and providing debt forgiveness.

I applaud the city for taking this important step toward learning about its unique water affordability challenges and solutions, and I hope to see other cities follow Chicago’s example and lead with transparency and an openness to learning from what they have to share.

Anne Evens, CEO, Elevate

Lightfoot held to different standard

Every time I read complaints about Mayor Lori Lightfoot, I think the same thing: “At least she has not sold off the parking meters. Or the Skyway.” She hasn’t had the equivalent of the Hired Truck Scandal. She hasn’t destroyed an airport or put a UFO inside a sports stadium. Progress!

The same people complaining about crime under Lightfoot probably vigorously supported Richard M. Daley, who ran the city under a similar crime wave. The mayor’s no-nonsense approach is not at all different than Daley’s. It seems when a white man does it, he becomes beloved, but when a Black woman does it, all hell breaks loose.

Don Anderson, Oak Park

Opinion Newsletter

Vallas wrong about closings

An article from Jan. 21 states that Paul Vallas “fired back” to the charge by the CTU that he over-used school closures and turnarounds “saying he didn’t close any schools while he was CEO.” This is untrue.

In 1999, while CEO of CPS, Vallas closed two vocational high schools: Near North Career Academy and Jones Metropolitan High School of Business and Commerce.

I was a reporter for Substance Newspaper and a teacher at Jones in April 1998 when Vallas announced he was closing Near North. He told me, “No one wants their kid to go to Near North,” but there had been more than 700 applicants for the freshman class. The school provided training in culinary arts and several other vocational fields.

Vallas also did not tell the truth about the jobs program at Jones, which for more than 60 years had provided paid employment to all its seniors. Many of the jobs were entry-level business positions that opened doors for lifelong careers at banks, insurance offices and other downtown firms, yet Vallas told Substance, “Those jobs don’t amount to anything.”

In 1998, when Vallas announced his closing of Jones as a vocational high school, more than 300 Loop employers joined students at Jones’ annual employer/student breakfast. The business curriculum, jobs program and employer partnerships no longer exist at Jones, nor at any other Chicago public high school.

Sharon Schmidt, Portage Park

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